I just got back from a funeral. Most funerals that I’ve been to have been sad, and the dead person has been mourned, but they’ve been the funerals of older people, and so there isn’t a feeling of surprise. And there hasn’t been the additional element of parental grief. Two that I’ve attended have had the last component: my husband’s cousin, who died in a snowboarding accident, and this one, an infant boy. There’s something sacred and horrific about watching parents bury their child.
I wonder if these deaths feel more tragic because we’re so sheltered from early childhood mortality. Not all of us, of course. Some friends I love lost their son to SIDS years ago, and my cousin died the same way. But over all, I expect that most of us see the possibility of the death of a child as remote, something that happens in Sudan or to our ancestors, but not something that we’re likely to experience. So we watch our kids, we make them wear bug spray and hold their hands when we cross the street. We warn them against strangers and drinking and smoking and unprotected sex. But we believe that medicine can help us prevent childhood illnesses, cure their diseases and ensure that they grow up reasonably healthy. We trust that our schools will prepare them to earn a living, that our churches will keep them out of jail, and that problems, mental, physical and emotional, can be fixed by medicine. So when a friend puts her no longer breathing infant into a white casket and lowers him into the ground, it throws my middle-class suburban world into a tail spin.
Now, I’m not stupid. I know that plenty of women in my own city watch their children die. They see them suffer from diseases that my children don’t have because we have all the insurance we can handle. They put them to bed without a full belly because there just isn’t a way to pay those bills and feed those children. Their schools will teach them less about earning a living than about getting around authority. I’m not ranting about designer clothes and ballet lessons. I’m thinking about people who work, or would work if they were allowed to, but who can’t provide vegetables every day, who can’t pay for insulin or eyeglasses or the chickenpox vaccine. I’m worried about families who can’t live together because they can’t survive at all that way. I’m thinking about the guys who used to pick my tomatoes, who built my house and who butchered the cow I ate for dinner. I know those people. We used to go to church together. And let me tell you, they aren’t running drugs, using up the welfare system or taking jobs my kids want. But my kids, and I, are sucking the life out of them because I don’t want to pay more than $1/lb for apples.
Fixing those problems wouldn’t have helped my friend, so maybe I should just keep my liberal mouth shut. Or, maybe I should quit moping and actually do something about the problems I can address.